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Children’s Books About Residential Schools in Canada

Church-run schools for Indigenous children were created in Canada in the 1600s. In 1883, the Canadian government funded and helped establish more church-run schools. The goal was to assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant white, Christian society. By the time the last residential school closed in 1996, more than 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children had been forced to attend against their will and the wishes of their parents. Many children were physically, emotionally and sexually abused at the schools. Thousands died. The multigenerational social and psychological effects of the schools have been devastating and ongoing. The federal government and churches have apologized for what is now widely considered a form of genocide. (See also Genocide and Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)

Knowledge of what happened at the schools is an essential part of reconciliation and healing. Many children’s books have been written about residential schools as part of that essential effort. This list includes titles for toddlers to preteens. Together, these books explore a variety of themes related to residential schools, including intergenerational trauma, language revitalization, commemoration and the power of resistance.

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Métis Experiences at Residential School

Although the first residential schools in Canada were established with the intention of assimilating First Nations children into Euro-Canadian culture, Métis and Inuit children were also institutionalized in such facilities. Métis children experienced similar day-to-day conditions to those of other students in residential schools, but they were often considered “outsiders” by their peers and administrators. This perception affected their experiences within these institutions in particular ways.


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Intergenerational Trauma and Residential Schools

Historical trauma occurs when trauma caused by historical oppression is passed down through generations. For more than 100 years, the Canadian government supported residential school programs that isolated Indigenous children from their families and communities (see Residential Schools in Canada). Under the guise of educating and preparing Indigenous children for their participation in Canadian society, the federal government and other administrators of the residential school system committed what has since been described as an act of cultural genocide. As generations of students left these institutions, they returned to their home communities without the knowledge, skills or tools to cope in either world. The impacts of their institutionalization in residential school continue to be felt by subsequent generations. This is called intergenerational trauma.

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Reconciliation in Canada

In Canada, the process of reconciliation is tied to the federal government's relationship with Indigenous peoples. The term has come to describe attempts made by individuals and institutions to raise awareness about colonization and its ongoing effects on Indigenous peoples. Reconciliation also refers to efforts made to address the harms caused by various policies and programs of colonization, such as residential schools. For some, the word represents an opportunity to reflect on the past, to heal and to make right. For others, however, current gestures of reconciliation are merely performative and lack meaningful action to address the harms done by colonization.

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Egerton Ryerson

Adolphus Egerton Ryerson, Methodist minister, educator (born 24 March 1803 in Charlotteville Township, Norfolk County, Upper Canada; died 18 February 1882 in Toronto, Ontario). Egerton Ryerson was a leading figure in education and politics in 19th century Ontario. He helped found and edit the Christian Guardian (1829) and served as president of the Methodist Church of Canada (1874–78). As superintendent of education in Canada West, Ryerson established a system of free, mandatory schooling at the primary and secondary level — the forerunner of Ontario’s current school system. He also founded the Provincial Normal School (1847), which eventually became the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). Ryerson also served as principal of Victoria College, which he helped found in 1836 as the Upper Canada Academy. He was also, however, involved in the development of residential schools in Canada. This has led to increasing calls to rename Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University) and other institutions named in his honour.

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Chanie Wenjack

Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack (born 19 January 1954; died 23 October 1966 near Redditt, ON). Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy from Ontario, ran away from his residential school near Kenora at age 12, and subsequently died from hunger and exposure to the harsh weather. His death in 1966 sparked national attention and the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.

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Genocide and Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Genocide is the intentional destruction of a particular group through killing, serious physical or mental harm, preventing births and/or forcibly transferring children to another group. The term has been applied to the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly in the final reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see also Residential Schools) and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry.

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Wilton Littlechild

Jacob Wilton (Willie) Littlechild, CM, athlete, lawyer, Cree chief, politician, advocate for Indigenous rights (born 1 April 1944 in Hobbema, [now Maskwacîs] AB). Littlechild formed and coached Alberta’s first all-Indigenous junior hockey team and created the National Indian Athletic Association. He is a member of seven sports halls of fame. In 1976, Littlechild earned a law degree from the University of Alberta. He went on to become the first member of Parliament with Treaty Indian Status in Canada in 1988. Littlechild served as a commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009. Throughout his career, Littlechild has promoted Indigenous rights both nationally and internationally.

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Phil Fontaine

Larry Phillip (Phil) Fontaine, OC, OM, National Chief of AFN, activist, advisor on Indigenous relations (born 20 September 1944 in Sagkeeng First Nation on the Fort Alexander Reserve, MB). Phil Fontaine served as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) for an unprecedented three terms. Under his leadership the AFN negotiated both the Kelowna Accord and the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Fontaine has received many honours and awards, including the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Order of Canada, and numerous honorary doctorates. In 2017, he launched Recognition2Action, a campaign to legally recognize Indigenous peoples as Founding Nations of Canada.

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The Indian Act

The Indian Act is the principal law through which the federal government administers Indian status, local First Nations governments and the management of reserve land and communal monies. The Indian Act does not include Métis or Inuit peoples. The Act came into power on 12 April 1876. It consolidated a number of earlier colonial laws that sought to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian culture. The Indian Act has been amended many times over the years to do away with restrictive and oppressive laws. However, the Act has had historic and ongoing impacts on First Nations cultures, economies, politics and communities. It has also caused inter-generational trauma, particularly with regards to residential schools.

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Matthew Coon Come

Matthew Coon Come, OC, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees (1987–99, 2009–17), National Chief of AFN (2000–03); activist, environmentalist (born in 1956 near Mistissini, Quebec). Matthew Coon Come was Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees for 20 years and served one term as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He achieved national and international fame through his successful opposition to the James Bay hydroelectric project in the 1990s, his assertion of Cree self-determination, and his advocacy for Indigenous self-determination across the world.

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Romeo Saganash

Romeo Saganash, lawyer, politician, advocate for Indigenous rights (born 28 October 1962 in Waswanipi, a Cree community southeast of James Bay in central Quebec). Saganash is Quebec’s first Indigenous Member of Parliament and the province’s first Cree person to receive an undergraduate law degree. He is believed to be the first Indigenous leader in Canada to run for the leadership of a major political party. For the last 20 years, Saganash has represented the Cree at numerous national and international forums concerning Indigenous issues. He spent 23 years helping to negotiate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — a resolution that provides a framework to implement treaty rights between First Peoples and Canada and to fulfill other obligations in international agreements. He has spent his life furthering the economic, environmental, legal and constitutional rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada, particularly the Cree in the James Bay region.

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Rita Joe

Rita Joe (née Rita Bernard), PC, CM, Mi’kmaq poet (born 15 March 1932 in Whycocomagh, NS; died 20 March 2007 in Sydney, NS). Often referred to as the poet laureate of the Mi’kmaq people, Rita Joe wrote powerful poetry that spoke about Indigenous identity and the legacy of residential schools in Canada. Her works continue to influence Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers and artists alike.

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Jose Kusugak

Jose Amaujaq Kusugak, Inuk politician, community leader, teacher, activist, linguist and broadcaster (born 2 May 1950 in Repulse Bay, NT [now Naujaat, NU]; died 18 or 19January 2011 in Rankin Inlet, Kivalliq, NU). Kusugak was president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. from 1994 to 2000. This was the organization responsible for negotiating and implementing the land claim that ultimately resulted in the creation of Nunavut in 1999. For this reason, some consider Kusugak a Father of Confederation. He was also a lifelong advocate for Inuit rights, language and culture.

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Racial Segregation of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Racial segregation is the enforced separation of different racial groups in a country, community or establishment. Historically, the racial segregation of Indigenous peoples in Canada has been enforced by the Indian Act, reserve system, residential schools, and Indian hospitals, among other programs. These policies interfered with the social, economic, cultural and political systems of Indigenous peoples, while also paving the way for European settlement across the country. The segregation of Indigenous peoples in Canada must be understood within the history of contact, doctrines of discovery and conquest, and ongoing settler colonization.

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Indigenous Language Revitalization in Canada

Before European settlement in Canada, Indigenous peoples spoke a wide variety of languages. As a means of assimilating Indigenous peoples, colonial policies like the Indian Act and residential schools forbid the speaking of Indigenous languages. These restrictions have led to the ongoing endangerment of Indigenous languages in Canada. In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that for about 40 Indigenous languages in Canada, there are only about 500 speakers or less. Indigenous communities and various educational institutions have taken measures to prevent more language loss and to preserve Indigenous languages.

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Nuchatlaht

The Nuchatlaht (“people of the mountain”) are a Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation residing on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. According to the federal government, the Nuchatlaht numbered 167 registered members, as of October 2021.

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Cindy Blackstock

Cindy Blackstock, OC, social worker, author, professor, advocate (born 1964 in Burns Lake, BC). Blackstock is a nationally and internationally respected advocate for the rights of Indigenous children. She co-founded the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in 1998. Later, Blackstock led the organization’s case against the federal government from 2007–16. The Caring Society argued child welfare services provided to First Nations children and families on-reserve were discriminatory and flawed. Blackstock and the Caring Society continue to work toward improving child and family services for Indigenous children across Canada.

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Arthur Shilling

In May 1983 Shilling was one of 7 Canadian artists invited by Governor General Edward Schreyer to show at Rideau Hall, Ottawa. His paintings are in many corporate and private collections throughout North America. His life is documented in the film The Beauty of My People (NFB, 1978).